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UNESCO City of Literature: Margaret Cavendish

13 January 15 words: UNESCOCOL
Here's your second essay in the series supporting Nottingham's bid to win the City of Literature title
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illustration: Raph Achache

Ok. Yes, Margaret Cavendish was born into a wealthy Essex family, but we can claim her as one of our own as she married William Cavendish, the Lord Lieutenant of Nottinghamshire, and spent many years here helping to tart up Bolsover Castle and Welbeck Abbey.

Margaret was raised by her mother as her father passed away when she was two. This meant she avoided the strict parenting of the age and was instead encouraged to play and use her imagination, both of which would be pivotal in shaping her moral and mental outlook. In 1642, the family moved to the Royalist military stronghold of Oxford, where Margaret became a Maid of Honour to Queen Henrietta Maria. But when the Civil War started to properly hot up in 1644, Mary and the Royal entourage fled across the channel to the safety of Paris. Life as a courtier wasn’t quite as glamorous as you would imagine. It was full of back-stabbing bitches all eager to up their social status and was in stark contrast to the freedom and love of her childhood. It would shape in Margaret a lifelong distaste for fashionable society that she would satirise in her play The Presence, as well as other stories.

The following year she got hitched to the widowed William Cavendish, thirty years her senior. As the Marquis of Newcastle, William was one of the most powerful men in England, so Margaret quickly jacked in her job as a courtier. William, in addition to being a commander of Charles I, was a well-known patron of the arts and loved grand building projects, transforming traditional aristocratic households into centres of artistic patronage, with guests such as Thomas Hobbes and Descartes regularly invited over. Unfortunately, due to the Civil War, the couple would have to wait until the Restoration of 1660 before they could return back and develop their cribs.

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illustration: Raph Achache

During their enforced exile they travelled across Europe, living mainly off credit and reputation. Access to cosmopolitan culture and an educational elite would have a profound effect on Margaret. In Utrecht, she encountered Anna Maria van Schurmann, author of The Learned Maid (1639), which argued for the improvement of women’s education. In Paris, she discovered Pierre Le Moyne’s Gallerie des Femmes Fortes, a new movement that idealised strong women in possession of ‘male’ virtues (courage, moral strength) while retaining their femininity (beauty). Paris was also home to the emerging feminine salon culture, where women debated hot topics such as whether it’s better to be intelligent or beautiful, and what constitutes a good conversation. For maximum kudos, responses were given in allegories, similes or compact character sketches and was basically a testing ground for wit and wordplay, kind of like a seventeenth century version of Radio 4’s The News Quiz, but for aristocratic women.

Margaret could quite easily have moped around in relative luxury during her exile. Instead she embarked on a prolific writing career that constantly challenged accepted norms. Poems, and Fancies (1653) was the first book of English poetry deliberately published by a woman in her own name. To put this into context, historian Katie Whitaker found that in the first forty years of the seventeenth century there were eighty books published by women, equating to about 0.5% of all published work, and most of them were published posthumously or in pirated copies without the author’s consent. It was rare for even aristocratic women to be properly educated as their focus was normally housewifery. It was even suggested that education was dangerous for the inferior female brain which was deemed soft and incapable of absorbing information. Consequently, Margaret was educated at home in basic literacy. For her to dare to have an opinion was in itself an act of rebellion - to make this public was scandalous.


Poetry was the commonest genre of writing by women and was generally used to celebrate social occasions such as marriage. Yet exceptionally, for either a male or female, Margaret never once produced love poetry, deeming it too obvious and “a tree whereon all poets climb”. Instead she opted for philosophical verse that challenged the Christian-Judaism tradition of man’s superiority over nature. A Dialogue of Birds, for instance, critiqued man’s obsession with hunting and killing birds that dared eat the tiniest of fruits. She went on to argue that animals may have intelligence too. As she moved to other genres, she was keen to broach masculine subjects, debating the role of religion, law and philosophy. She advocated the celibacy of monks on the grounds that it helped keep the population down. Then she exposed the folly of religion, arguing that if men based their supremacy over women on the grounds that Jesus was a male, then men were by implication inferior to a dove, given that this is how the Holy Spirit is represented. The men didn’t like this smart arse, and negative rumours started to spread.

For a long time, people didn't accept that Margaret had written her books herself because she was addressing male topics, and therefore they must have come from a male mind. Her poetry was slated for its poor rhyme and metre but she shrugged this off, arguing there was an obsession with form to the detriment of imagination. Other works were criticised for their poor grammar, punctuation and spelling. There’s been some fanciful claims that this was deliberate, that Margaret was simply appropriating language and creating her own unique style, a bit like txt spk. But it was more likely that she was dyslexic. The fact that she had no formal education or training in quill writing would have further exacerbated the problem.

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A lot of these prejudices, particularly male expectations and social conventions, recur throughout her writing. In Assaulted and Pursued Chastity, the heroine Lady Travellia saves herself from a Prince by dressing as a male and fleeing aboard a ship. At her destination she encounters cannibals but she is able to save herself by learning their language and communicating on an equal level, something more achievable in the novel than in real life. In The Blazing World, a kind of Utopian political thriller which is seen by many as the first science fiction story, Margaret appears and strikes up an intimate friendship with an Empress, suggesting there is more to life than heterosexual relationships.

Margaret exuded as much individuality in her clothing as she did on the page. She wasn’t content to go along with the latest trends and instead designed her own costumes that strived to symbolise her revolutionary identity as a female intellectual. People would flock from miles around to see her, often attracting crowds usually reserved for Royalty. Diarist Samuel Pepys tracked her down in 1667 but was disappointed at seeing the myth in the flesh, dismissing her as “a mad, conceited, ridiculous woman” but this criticism may tell us more about Pepys. He was authoritarian in his own marriage and came down hard on his wife when she dared to wear clothes he did not approve of. Unsurprisingly, Margaret wasn’t a fan of slap either, finding it oily on her skin and generally disgusting. Her only compromise was a bit of powder on her face and painting her nipples scarlet. The mindless following of fashion was just another form of oppression as far as she was concerned. This attitude didn’t bode well with other women, who saw her as betraying her gender. But she had come to expect snobbery, idle gossip and backstabbing from her class. She would take her revenge on the page.

2014 is the Year of Reading Women and it is hard to think of a more inspirational figure from Nottingham’s past for modern writers. Yes, she was a toff. But a toff who turned her back on an easy life and instead strived to change perceptions. She made many enemies and many friends during her fifty years of life and was essentially an Epicurean at heart, in search of personal pleasures. If society would not allow a woman equal rights then she would create her own through words, “Though I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second, yet I endeavour to be Margaret the First… I have made a world of my own: for which nobody, I hope, will blame me, since it is in everyone’s power to do the like.”

This article was based on two superb books: Mad Madge by Katie Whitaker and Margaret Cavendish: The Blazing World and Other Writings, Ed. Kate Lilley 

Nottingham City of Literature website

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